Unfortunately, there’s no amount or specific type of training that will guarantee a person success in sports entertainment (or anything in life, for that matter). While nearly everyone who laces up his or her wrestling boots dreams of becoming WWE Champion or another company’s equivalent, only a small percentage will ever truly get the chance. The good news for any rookies out there who have yet to experience the spotlight is that plenty of extremely successful pro wrestlers not only started at the bottom, but also got stuck there for quite some time.
Not everyone innately knows the type of role they’re suited for in this world, and for wrestlers, this can lead to many early problems when creating a character. Born heels who start out as faces tend to fail just as quickly as natural heroes being forced to act villainous, and this dynamic is merely one way a rookie can get miscast before their career even begins. Luckily, so long as WWE or whatever company they’re working for can recognize things aren’t working, there’s always time to give failing wrestlers a new identity and start things fresh.
Even wrestlers who looked completely hopeless were able to become stars at a rapid pace once they found a role that actually worked for them. Typically, once a superstar taps into whatever the personal “it” factor they possess, they’re then able to play almost any role asked of them, so long as it maintains a few key character details. To find out who gradually learned how to do that, keep reading and discover 15 wrestlers who needed a few years of experience before hitting their stride.
15 Batista Went From A Deacon To An Animal
More than just a little inexperienced, when Batista first got his start in pro wrestling, he claims the WCW Power Plant told him he had no chance of ever becoming a superstar. Less than 10 years later, Batista was one of the biggest names in the WWE Universe, and WCW was long out of business, so there’s no question who got the last laugh on this one. That said, based on the first couple years of Batista’s career, it’s hard to blame his early detractors for questioning him. He definitely didn’t have much of a shot when he made his WWE debut as Deacon Batista, the angry alter boy supporting Reverend D-Von.
Thankfully, his holy days were very quickly put behind him, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing from there.
On the plus side, Batista quickly reinvented himself as the muscle of Evolution. However, Vince McMahon and company were apparently aware of his limitations, having Batista rarely speak, and mostly stand on the ring apron as Ric Flair’s tag team partner. Turns out the Animal was paying attention, though, as after a few years as the support act, Batista was more than ready for the spotlight when he turned on Evolution. Batista only continued growing from there, arguably getting exponentially better as a performer until the day he left WWE.
14 Lack Of Response Couldn’t Hinder Jinder Mahal
With all due respect, there are plenty of WWE fans out there arguing Jinder Mahal still hasn’t “hit his stride,” as it were. Negative though the response has been, one can’t ignore that Mahal went from an absolute nobody to a former WWE and United States Champion, and Mahal remains a top act in the company today after losing those belts. Notwithstanding what audiences seem to think about Jinder’s talent level, this elevation was already a huge shock on paper, as less than five years ago, the self-proclaimed Modern Day Maharaja was a forgettable midcarder who rarely won a match.
WWE actually released Mahal in the summer of 2014, and it looked like that was the end of his journey. During his time off, Mahal greatly increased his physique, reigniting Vince McMahon’s interest in a major way just a couple years later. Immediately after Mahal returned, he shot straight up the card and was main eventing Pay-Per-Views within a year. The downside is that many critics have been complaining about Mahal’s bland work in the ring and on the microphone, suggesting he didn’t necessarily deserve this jump in fame. Triple H and Vince McMahon clearly disagree, though, and it’s their opinions that matter, meaning Mahal is probably going to stay on top for quite a while.
13 Mark Henry Braced Himself Before Lifting His Profile
No matter how hard some of the wrestlers on this list struggled, Vince McMahon and company probably had some sort of faith in them at the beginning. There’s no doubt McMahon saw something special in Mark Henry, hiring him to a 10-year contract worth millions of dollars. It makes sense Vince would be interested, considering Henry was already well known for his success in the world of weightlifting, holding enough records he genuinely held claim to being the “World’s Strongest Man.” Of course, there’s a whole lot more to wrestling than being able to lift large amounts of weight.
For the first six or seven years of his career, Henry failed to stand out as an in-ring talent, so WWE gave him a number of embarrassing comedy gimmicks some cynics have suggested were an attempt to make him quit. Even if they weren’t actively trying to shame him, Henry wasn’t going to wind up in the main event as Sexual Chocolate or Mae Young’s boyfriend. However, he never gave up, always doing whatever WWE asked of him until eventually they decided to key in on his strengths and open the Hall of Pain. Once he started splitting wigs, Henry finally revealed the potential he always possessed, using it to win the World Heavyweight Championship and enter the Hall of Fame.
12 John Bradshaw Layfield Found Fortune By…Finding Fortune
Big, tough, and Texan, in many respects, John Bradshaw Layfield was exactly the sort of wrestler many people expect would instantly succeed in the WWE Universe. Surprisingly, it took him nearly a full decade to truly take off, and the first few years weren’t exactly promising. Bradshaw played bland variations of cowboys for three entire years before finally finding some sort of niche as a bad ass bodyguard in the APA. Unfortunately, once the APA fell apart, Bradshaw went straight back to being a bland Texan and nearly dropped into obscurity for it.
Nonetheless, WWE liked Bradshaw enough to keep him around and give him more and more chances, and it finally paid off when he ditched the more generic elements and dug into his real persona as a pretentious millionaire. Now that he had a unique character, Bradshaw got audiences to care about him, earning such vitriol he quickly earned a shot at the WWE Championship. Upon winning the gold, Bradshaw instantly set a new record with his title reign, holding it longer than any other wrestler had in almost a decade. On the strength of this new character, JBL was also able to transition into a second career as one of the company’s top color commentators, a role he held for years to come.
11 Trish Stratus Predicted A Revolution
Coming to fame well before the women’s wrestling revolution, Trish Stratus most likely didn’t expect to become a game changing sports entertainer when first signed by WWE. Initially, she was just another gorgeous blonde known primarily for her good looks, with virtually no wrestling skill of which to speak. Not that this was necessarily an issue, considering Stratus started out as a manager/valet, simply leading up and coming male wrestlers to the ring for the first year or two of her career.
Things started changing after Trish engaged in an onscreen relationship with Vince McMahon, at which point her storylines suddenly became amongst the most important in the company. Once things with Vince were over, Stratus still had a very high profile, and WWE decided to have her take advantage of it by transitioning into a role as a full-time wrestler. When Trish won her first WWE Women’s Championship, many critics scoffed at the idea of a former manager suddenly holding the gold, only for her to silence all complaints with six subsequent reigns, each better than the last. Eventually, Trish grew so much as an in-ring talent that she became the godmother of the women’s revolution, with all other female superstars owing a little bit of credit to her for enhancing the way WWE views their gender.
10 Tazz Needed To Stop Acting Like A Devil
Although Vince McMahon never quite seemed to understand Tazz’s character, Paul Heyman and the fans of ECW most certainly got it. An indestructible monster with an unassuming size, Tazz suplexed his way to the ECW Championship after a path of destruction that included nearly everyone in the company. However, none of this happened until he had already been wrestling for seven or eight years. Up until that point, Tazz had been calling himself The Tasmanian Devil, bouncing around the ring in the cliché wrestling “savage” gimmick. Unsurprisingly, Tazz didn’t exactly stand out during this period, but the mood was about to change in a major way.
Having grown bitter with the reckless attitude of ECW, Tazz revealed he could speak all along and began cutting vicious promos while starting his aforementioned warpath. Before long, Tazz was amongst the most popular superstars in the company’s history, with fans rabid at the idea of him dethroning the hated Shane Douglas for the gold. Due to this success, Vince McMahon understandably did whatever it took to snatch Tazz away from ECW for the WWE Universe, yet for whatever reason, that’s where things started falling apart. Chances are Tazz may not have lasted much longer anyway thanks to nagging neck injuries. At least he got to experience a few years on top in Philadelphia.
9 Nia Jax Stood Up To Bullying And Found Herself
Prior to the women’s wrestling revolution, someone like Nia Jax could have instantly stood out in a role similar to Chyna or Bull Nakano. However, in the modern era, being the bigger, scariest woman around could only get her so far, something she learned twice over in both NXT and the main WWE roster. Even when Jax went on minor undefeated streaks, she was unable to significantly move up the card, presumably because her in-ring skills simply weren’t up to snuff with the rest of the division. She also didn’t have much to say on the microphone beside generic monster jargon, again hurting her chances in a generation of bold, talkative female superstars.
Not only was it turning out that her size alone wouldn’t be enough for Jax to win any Women’s Championships, but there’s also the unfortunate fact that it apparently lead to bullying throughout her life, onscreen and off.
The silver lining is that by standing up to her attackers in the WWE Universe, she was finally able to earn cheers and applause for the woman she was. Standing as a tough representative for the unfairly maligned, Jax also tapped into character work that was previously absent, making her strong enough on the microphone to become Raw Women’s Champion in the near future.
8 Chris Kanyon Proved Nobody Was Better
Terrible as WCW could get in the later years, there were always a few diamonds in the rough putting in hard work and delivering quality sports entertainment as best they could. One of the last shining stars was Chris Kanyon, a strong technical wrestler with great comic timing and a unique presence on the microphone. In the dying days of the company, Kanyon went from a jobber with a weird gimmick to a regular presence in the main event scene and a repeat Tag Team Champion. The success quickly stopped when WCW went out of business, as WWE showed no interest in promoting Kanyon’s talents at this level. Sudden as the decision was, it really shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.
Before he signed with WCW full time, Kanyon had been a forgettable opening act in both WWE and ECW, and apparently neither company saw that much promise in the guy. In fairness, Kanyon never had much of a gimmick at this time, and it’s well known Vince McMahon didn’t watch WCW, so he probably had no idea how much he developed as a performer. This is a real shame, as Kanyon had learned to excel in any gimmick or divisions, always wrestling good matches and creating entertaining content out of a dire situation.
7 Kevin Nash Couldn’t Tap In To Diesel Power
Once Vince McMahon got his hands on Kevin Nash, he instantly pushed the giant athlete to the moon, which was hardly a surprise given his size and charisma. That said, one organization that probably didn’t see Nash’s rise coming was WCW, considering they had a chance to make him a star a solid four years before he jumped to WWE. Instead, the company had Nash play some seriously ridiculous characters, most notably the Great and Powerful Oz. Not only was he direly unsuited for this role (anyone would be), but Nash also couldn’t hold his own in the ring, and didn’t have any notable presence on the microphone.
That all changed when he shed the silly gimmicks for a more dominant personality in Diesel.
The fact he left WCW for WWE was also extremely important, as Vince McMahon could recognize Diesel’s talents and accentuate them, rather than just hope his weird gimmicks would do the trick. Almost immediately, Diesel was on the fast track for greatness, winning all three WWE championships at the time in less than a calendar year. Before long, Nash’s profile rose so significantly WCW wanted him back, and by that point, he had such a strong grasp of his character that he revolutionized the company as one of it’s top stars.
6 Triple H Had A Terra Ryzing Origin
Based on this list, it’s clear that wrestling fans can’t always spot a future WWE Champion after their very first match. Triple H took things a whole lot further, going from a forgettable nobody to the person poised to take over the entire business in the near future. One thing’s for sure, though, in that no human being ever would have become the COO of the WWE Universe with the name “Terra Ryzing,” which Triple H used in the independent scene and a few of his earliest matches in WCW. Hunter’s name was hardly his only problem, either, as he also had significant issues in the ring.
For a rookie, his matches were way too long and slow, and he lacked the charisma to elevate them to a watchable level.
These problems persisted as WCW changed his name to Jean-Paul Lévesque, not far from his real name, but still nothing like his real personality. Instead, he was a posh aristocrat, a character WWE had him continue after he jumped ship, albeit in the new moniker Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Unlike WCW, though, WWE was able to recognize this wasn’t quite working, letting Triple H run wild in DX before gradually turning him into a power hungry cerebral assassin, two characters that finally made him a main event star.
5 Gorgeous George Almost Failed To Make A Splash
Forget about Hulk Hogan or Bruno Sammartino. The real man who put pro wrestling on the map experienced his heyday long before either of them became stars. Way back in the 1940s, Gorgeous George was by far the biggest name in the business, but it took him nearly a decade to find that standing. Always decent in the ring, George came to prominence in an era prior to wrestling embracing it’s crazy side with colorful characters and over-the-top activities. Initially, this is why George had trouble standing out — he was decent in the ring, but not spectacular, and that just wasn’t enough.
Luckily, George soon found the answer after recognizing the fame he received for marrying his wife inside the square circle. Instead of focusing on his ring skills, he’d just create a bombastic character fans would love to hate.
Entering the ring to “Pomp and Circumstance,” George was one of the first truly flamboyant sports entertainers in history. His showmanship and charisma were so far ahead of the time, it would be several decades before future superstars started copying him en masse. Eventually, George nonetheless became perhaps the most influential wrestler in history. The only catch is those interested in where sports entertainment began can easily ignore George’s work until he became Gorgeous.
4 The Rock Refused To give up
As the biggest star in Hollywood, it’s hard to remember a time when Dwayne Johnson wasn’t on top of the world. For this reason, it may be a bit surprising to newer fans that his first year or so in WWE was, well, terrible. It’s not that young Rocky Maivia was particularly untalented in the ring, but he was slotted into a role that absolutely didn’t suit him in the slightest, leading to incredible fan resentment when he was instantly treated like a star. Starting with his debut at the 1996 Survivor Series, The Rock was presented as a smiling, happy-go-lucky newcomer, wearing bright blue gear and sporting a very silly haircut.
Fans didn’t just dislike this character; they absolutely despised it. No matter how hard WWE pushed Rock as an underdog hero, audiences loudly chanted the especially vitriolic phrase “Die, Rocky, Die.”
Obviously, there was a problem here, and luckily, Rock and WWE found the answer. After taking a few months off to let fans forget the disappointment, Rock made his return as a brash and arrogant jock, shedding his goofy smile for omnipresent mean looks and incredible put downs. Before long, his funny turns of phrase slowly turned him into a main event hero, and then the biggest wrestling and movie star in the world.
3 Mick Foley Fell Down A Million Times Before Getting Up
No one can turn into a hardcore legend overnight. Impressive as it was to watch Mick Foley fall down with no concern for his safety from the beginning of his career, he needed to pull himself back up dozens of times before this made him any different from a regular stunt man. There’s more to wrestling than just falling down, as well, meaning he needed to learn how to act and wrestle in between his big bumps.
Perhaps most important of all, Foley also needed to learn his the art of emotional storytelling on the microphone, which he barely even attempted as a rookie.
Because Foley’s style was so new and unique when he hit the scene, it took five or six years before a major company took notice. After learning all there was to know about violence on the territorial scene, he was more than ready to stand out as a star in WCW as Cactus Jack. He only got better from there, fully preparing him to become a main event star after jumping to WWE. This was just a little bit surprising considering one decade earlier, Foley already made a few WWE appearances as a forgettable jobber. By that point, though, he had grown so much he was an entirely different performer.
2 “Diamond” Dallas Page Was The World’s Oldest Rookie
Everyone on this list got a late start, yet only one of them called himself “the world’s oldest rookie.” Of course, “Diamond” Dallas Page probably had the best claim to the title, not beginning his training to become a pro wrestler until he was 35 years old. Granted, he had been supporting other superstars as a manager for about three years at that point, but even this was a little late for someone to first show interest in such a physical sport. Not that this ever stopped DDP, as he slowly but surely rose up the ranks to become one of the top superstars in WCW.
Hard as he worked and far as he came, things weren’t always easy for the master of the Diamond Cutter. For the first six years of his career, he rarely rose above the midcard, and only a select few wrestlers could work the sort of matches at which he excelled. This lead to long and repetitive feuds against equally low profile names, and not much else. Eventually, he learned to intricately plan his every move long before the cameras were ready to roll, dramatically increasing his work ethic and match quality. This game plan made him a three time WCW Champion, and one of the few men to earn his first Big Gold Belt after turning 40.
1 John Cena Was Hardly The Prototype For Greatness
For over a decade now, John Cena has been the biggest superstar in wrestling. WWE is so proud of his accomplishments they continue referring to him as the face of the industry despite the fact he only wrestles a handful of matches per year. There’s no blaming them for doing so, either, because Cena truly is the most well known wrestler in mainstream America today, and he proves exactly why that is with incredible performances each time he steps in the ring.
It wasn’t always this way, though, and in fact, there’s no way Cena would have become the star he is today using his original character.
Before Cena realized he could get along just fine by being himself, he devised the bizarre persona of The Prototype. More than just a metaphor, Cena’s catchphrase at the time claimed he was “50% man, 50% machine, 100% mayhem.” Similarly, his ring work was described as robotic and free of the energy and creativity he would show as he rocketed up the card. Even as Cena started using his own name and moved up from the developmental league to WWE proper, it took him a few years to find a character that clicked with fans. Once Cena finally shed his generic tendencies to become a rapper turned superhero, the sky was the limit to his fame.
References: wwe.com, ewrestlingnews.com